Artist Profile: Kirsten Flagstad

The Norwegian Soprano Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962) was one of the greatest Wagner singers of all time and, with her monumental voice, the epitome of a dramatic soprano. It’s no coincidence that I have the same first name; my parents were so fascinated by her voice that they named me after her. However, it took some time before I was able to honour my name. As a small child I was very unhappy with it because few people could pronounce it correctly and when I spoke to my mother about it, she explained to me who I was named after. But it was only when I got older and became interested in historical recordings that I could appreciate it. This voice was not only fabulously big in volume, but also supple and beguilingly beautiful in pianissimo. Sir Georg Solti aptly compared her warm, rich sound to that of a Stradivarius violin.

A program I dedicated to my namesake on Deutschlandfunk on 16 July 2020 to mark her 125th birthday prompted me to finally go in search of interviews with her. My expectations of finding anything useful in the radio archives were limited, but I unexpectedly discovered a remarkable document on the BBC: in 1950, Kirsten Flagstad gave a fabulous speech there entitled “How to sing Wagner – How to sing Wagner properly“. Her advice to young female colleagues at that time is so wise that I can only recommend every aspiring Wagner singer to listen to it. “My voice simply grew. And it is this word ‘grow’ which is most important of all“. This natural “growing” is the most important thing of all. Fagstad is addressing her words primarily to those young female singers who think that they can sing Isolde in their early 20s, thereby getting right to the heart of the problem that we are currently facing again, where directors prefer to cast pretty, young, slim female singers who usually lack the vocal skills.

Kirsten Flagstad made her debut at the National Theatre in Oslo in 1913 at the age of 18. She sang the role of Nuri in Eugen d’Albert’s opera Tiefland. Roles in works by Gounod, Bizet, Mascagni, Verdi and Puccini followed. Young Kirsten learned her roles so quickly that Alexander Varnay, director of the Opéra Comique in Oslo and father of her colleague Astrid Varnay, said about her: “Kirsten can do anything!”.

In Wagner, she approached the great roles cautiously, step by step. When she took on Elsa in Lohengrin, her first major role, she was 34. She made her debut at the Bayreuth Festival in 1933 as Ortlinde in Die Walküre and the third Norn in Götterdämmerung. A year later she returned to the “Grüner Hügel” as Sieglinde and Gutrune.

In 1935 her path led her to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where, after successes in Oslo, Gothenburg, Brussels and Bayreuth, the heroine reached the pinnacle of her career. Her debut as Sieglinde was a great triumph, and shortly after her sensational breakthrough, Kirsten Flagstad was celebrated as Isolde. In a much-quoted interview, Giulio Gatti-Casazza, then Artistic Director of the Met, said that Enrico Caruso and Kirsten Flagstad were the greatest discoveries that the stage owed him. Accordingly, he made great demands on Kirsten Flagstad and gave her little rest. One premiere followed another. The “fighter with Viking blood”, as the soprano described herself, worked hard for her success. Her debut as Brünnhilde came at the worst possible time for her, as she was unable to attend rehearsals due to a severe case of flu. Nevertheless, there was no question of her pulling out of the production, and in the end her singing was said to have possessed the qualities that people had come to expect from her: grandeur, luminosity, intensity and beauty.

To this day, it seems phenomenal that Kirsten Flagstad mastered the highly dramatic roles in a large number of performances without any vocal crises. She sang Isolde 182 (!) times. Only some high notes were lent to her by her friend Elisabeth Schwarzkopf for the late complete recording of Tristan und Isolde under Wilhelm Furtwängler in 1953. This was, of course, the brilliant idea of record producer Walter Legge. The two women’s voices blend so seamlessly that if you don’t notice, you don’t hear the little trick.

In 1941, overwhelmed by homesickness and longing for her husband, Kirsten Flagstad made every effort to return to German-occupied Norway. – It was a humane move, but one that many people did not understand. It was probably the same people who – without knowing the motives and background – reproached Wilhelm Furtwängler for not emigrating and accused Elisabeth Schwarzkopf of collaborating with the Nazis. In the end, Kirsten Flagstad’s reputation was even damaged by her husband’s imprisonment after the war for business dealings with Germans. She herself denied that her husband, Henry Johansen, had collaborated with the Nazis. In fact, his guilt has never been proven. When Kirsten Flagstad returned to New York in 1947 for a comeback, she walked with her head held high past the people who had gathered outside the concert halls to protest against her. The audience in the hall greeted her with even more demonstrative applause. In one of her last major performances, on 22 May 1950, Flagstad gave the world premiere of Richard Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder under Wilhelm Furtwängler. Flagstad died in Oslo on 7 December 1962.

In her home town of Hamar (130 kilometres north of Oslo, where Kirsten Flagstad worked as the artistic director of the Norwegian Opera from 1958 to 1960) there is a Flagstad Museum, which I would definitely like to visit at some point in my life.

Find out more about Kirsten Flagstad and other Wagner sopranos in Kirsten Liese’s book “Wagnerian Heroines. A Century of great Isoldes and Brünnhildes”, available in English and German at Edition Karo: https://www.edition-karo.de/biografien/wagnerheldinnen-de/

Photo: Nasjonalbiblioteket / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

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